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Big Brother is Watching You (Read)!

A really interesting article came out in the Wall Street Journal about eBooks and how readers read, giving a realistic peek into what readers want. The article talks about how retailers can now use eBook readers to mine data about how readers interact with their books—how long they read for, when they put a book down or what they read next. This kind of data opens up a whole new world to eBook retailers and publishers—data that was previous unavailable.

 Knowing when readers lose interest in a text or how many pages they are likely to read before walking away will help authors and publishers create eBooks that keep readers hooked and hopefully coming back for more. It could also be the first step in creating a truly interactive eBook, where readers get to leave feedback and interact (via the eBook) with authors and publishers.

 However, this new data also raises questions about privacy—reading, which was once a completely individual and solitary act, is now being shared and studied by big name companies and publishers. Devices such as the Kindle or Nook can now record exactly what it is you do while using your device. This information is then sent to eBook retailers for analysis. It’s not quite spying, but it is like having someone looking over your shoulder and taking notes about your reading habits.

 What do you think? Does it worry you that companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are now analyzing every word you read? Or does the lack of privacy get outweighed by the benefits that this data can provide? Do you think this kind of data will help publishers give readers a better experience?

15 Responses to Big Brother is Watching You (Read)!

  1. Joelle says:

    You have just convinced me to never, ever, ever get an e-reader. Thanks, I didn’t think I wanted one anyway.

  2. Dotti says:

    I don’t see this as a problem. My local indie bookshop knows my reading habits too. How else could they recommend books for me?

  3. Andrea says:

    Thank you! Another reason not to get one… It does sound like spying to me, actually. The only thing that can give me a better reading experience is a really good story, not big companies spying on their customers.

  4. Suilan says:

    > Does it worry you that companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are now analyzing every word you read?

    Yes. If I had to name one reason why I am never going to get an e-reader, this is it.

  5. EDWARD says:

    I couldn’t help noticing that the four people who have thus far responded to this question were excessively brief in their comments. Nobody addressed the question of Big Brother. It is a foregone conclusion that distributive technology, for good or bad, is a fixture we unthinkingly must live with. When we are instinctively inclined to vomit a revulsion worthy of the Satyricon, we politely hiccup and move on. The closest I can get to describing my sentiments about being spied on by somebody who refuses to pay me for the market research I unwillingly surrender to him is “doublecrimethink.” Where is your rage? Where in the innate sense of injustice? Is your entire response to be summed up as a casual “well, hey, whatever?”

    • Suilan says:

      Rage, yes, but what’s the point? You could achieve more batting at windmills.

      For now, at least it’s still a choice: you can choose not to buy an e-reader, but ten years down the road? I mean, I have enough unread (or re-readable) books in my house to last me another two lifetimes, but what happens when my favorite authors start publishing e-book only? I might cave in after all.

      Besides, my rage is too busy being directed toward facebook et al. and those trigger-happy people at parties who shoot pictures and put them up on facebook, including the real names in the caption, without ever bothering to ask if that’s OK with the people in the picture. (Or worse: you think they are shooting a picture and just searching for the right angle, zoom, whatever, but all the while they have been filming you…) You could try talking to them; they’d never understand why you are making a fuss.

      So at the few parties that I can’t avoid going to, I sneak off into the basement whenever a certain lady takes out her camera.

      Privacy is fast becoming the rarest luxury item on the planet. (And I’m surprised at how few people seem to be worried about it.)

      • EDWARD says:

        Gandhi believed that almost anything that you do will have be of no significance, but it is very important that YOU DO DO IT. Although the tiny rantings of insignificant nobodies like me will do nothing to alter the course of the world, in the collective they might. Don Quixote (to take an example of another lunatic who batted at windmills) was not only a paranoid psychotic, he was also a member of the fringe – a pariah – and a woefully ineffective one at that. He had a small, sympathetic following. He idealized a prostitute; by most of our conventional measures, he was a failure. Yet five centuries after the the publication of his book, the peculiar phrasing of ’tilting at windmills’ is employed, almost unconsciously, as a simplified way saying “you are taking on giants that pose no threat and don’t even exist.” Five centuries. Is there a moral here?

        • Suilan says:

          The moral is that I chose the wrong comparison. I meant to say that the battle was futile, not that it was against a threat that doesn’t exist. Because there is a threat. (But of course I would say that, if I’m Don Quixote.)

          Perhaps I should have quoted the Borg, then. :o)

    • Andrea says:

      I save my rage for things like poverty, hunger, discrimination, hypocrisy and cruelty. If I had to get angry at things that only affect those people who choose to enrich their lives with all sorts of gadgets, I wouldn’t have any energy left to write.

      • Suilan says:

        To me, the disappearance of privacy is one of the big issues of our time.

        Besides, I can’t be angry at poverty or hunger. I can feel sad, depressed, frustrated, helpless, but angry? No, anger must be directed at something concrete. I’m angry that our educational system fails to give children from all backgrounds the same chance to achieve something. I’m angry that most relief donations never make it to the people that need them. I’m angry at the throw-away mentality of our society in the face of shrinking resources and a growing world population.

        And sometimes I’m angry at things that affect only me or my family, not the entire world. Because most days, I don’t have the energy to take on the whole world.

  6. Simone says:

    Aside from the privacy issue, this part also bothers me:

    “Others worry that a data-driven approach could hinder the kinds of creative risks that produce great literature. ‘The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn’t have anything to do with,’ says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ‘We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it.’

    …Coliloquy’s digital books, which are available on Kindle, Nook and Android e-readers, have a “choose-your-own-adventure”-style format, allowing readers to customize characters and plot lines. The company’s engineers aggregate and pool the data gleaned from readers’ selections and send it to the authors, who can adjust story lines in their next books to reflect popular choices.”

  7. In truth, I’m more worried about the quality of the books publishers might try to pump out to get more “If you liked this, you’ll love this!” sales than the fact that my reading habits might be tracked. My sales already are for sure, and not just by Amazon since I have a Kindle. Ever notice how those coupons you get with your receipt at Target are usually for products you would buy, rather than random things you’ve never purchased? That’s because they’re tracking all the purchases associated with a specific card and forming recommendations based on that. Creepy? A bit, but it’s how the electronic world works. Having *this* be the reason you won’t get an ereader strikes me as a bit silly unless you’re also willing to pay cash to avoid data collection at any other store. The problem, if you see it as one, extends beyond ereaders.

    I’m more concerned with being pummeled with ads for cookie-cutter books. Just because I liked book A with pirates and book B with car chases doesn’t mean I’ll like some book that has both. I might, but only if it has the same combination of factors that usually keep me hooked: voice, plot, intriguing characters, theme, etc.

    • Suilan says:

      when I go shopping, whether at the local supermarket or at amazon, I’m going out to buy something, so if they are trying to sell something to me, that’s kind of the point. Moreover, I’m going to THEIR place, so they have a right to watch me.

      But with reading, it’s my home we’re talking about. If I can’t have privacy at my own home, what’s left?

  8. Suilan says:

    > Do you think this kind of data will help publishers give readers a better experience?

    No. For one, it seems that so far, all they found out is what everybody has always known: Novels are normally read first page to last while nonfiction tends to be read “in fits and starts.” Genre readers read a lot; literary fiction takes longer.

    (Wow, really? Hm. OK, so Harry Potter took me four days for the first four volumes while it took me four months to get through “The Magic Mountain”, even though Thomas Mann is my favorite author, sharing the #1 spot with Tolkien. Oh, wait, they might be on to something: reading literary fiction is harder than reading genre YA! You need to pause and think every now and then. Be really awake. Nothing you’d pick up after a long day when you’re tired and can’t concentrate anymore.)

    Anyway, all the discoveries the article mentions are utterly banal. But no harm done. It’s one of their proposed solutions that makes me shudder. “Pinpointing the moment when readers get bored could also help publishers create splashier digital editions by adding a video, a Web link or other multimedia features, Mr. Hilt says.”

    Ugh! I don’t want to be bombarded with noisy, splashy multimedia junk. I read to get away from all that, to get some peace and quiet. Besides, if I interrupt my reading, I probably have a good reason. (Perhaps the telephone rang? The doorbell? My husband just walked in, crying: Feed me? Or it’s just past my bedtime.) But even if boredom was the reason, a video, web link, or any other invasive thing like that is only going to make me one angry ex-customer.

  9. Suilan says:

    Oops, I pushed the button too hastily. I do have a third point as to why I don’t think this data is going to help publishers give readers a better experience or even make more accurate suggestions: it’s all to circumstantial. Say, I stop reading on page two, what does that tell you? There are a thousand possible reasons, half of which would have nothing to do with the text. And even if it does, well, most of time I myself wouldn’t be able to say what about the text made me stop reading other than a vague: didn’t grab me. Or: Not what I was looking for. But what grabs me and what doesn’t? What am I looking for?

    Nine years ago I discovered Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden Files (still love it!) and since then I have been looking for another urban fantasy series to enjoy. Tried lots, never got past chapter one. They had all the same ingredients, but something was missing. The most obvious point at which they failed: I didn’t care about the main character. (Dresden’s voice won me over on page one.) After nine years of searching, I only recently found another urban fantasy writer I like (Kalayna Price, “Grave Witch”). Why do I like it? Um. I like the character. The magic system. And… huh. Can’t really say what makes this book different (and better) from all the others I’ve looked at.

    So I wonder: How could anyone possibly learn the master key to my taste from their analysis of my e-book habits? How could they discover even the most obvious reasons for why I shut a book in disgust? Such as finding any of the following on the first few pages:

    (1) Words like urine and feces (=author trying to hard to tell me: oh, this is a dark, dirty world you’re going enter, beware… Of what? Stepping in something squishy? A bit more scope, please.)

    (2) Torture or someone escaping a rape attempt (why would I care if I haven’t met the people yet? Also, see first point.)

    (3) Detailed description of a woman’s clothes and make-up, especially if it’s first-person pov, telling the reader how hot she is and how every head turns as she passes. (Can you get any more Mary Sue than that? Ugh. Besides, it’s not the kind of woman I am, would want to be, or could relate to.)

    (4) Choppy prose. Banal ideas and word choice. Not a single sentence that has me think: wow, nicely put!

    (5) Adult character sounding (and acting) like a teenager.

    So I don’t think this spying on and analyzing their readers is going to help anyone write, publish, or recommend better books. (Or more to the point: books that I will like.) In fact, the whole idea seems a little desperate to me.

    There are four more reasons that keep me from buying an e-reader but this issue is the one they would need to fix, then the other ones might become a matter of compromise.

    Sorry for the long posts. This is obviously something I care about a great deal, maybe a little bit too much. (I’ve been lurking here for years and never said a word… ;o)

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